It would be easy to dismiss Ricken’s self-help book That you are, in the first season of severance pay — it actually often happens when the copy Ricken (Michael Chernus) leaves on his brother-in-law Mark’s doorstep wanders from one person to the next. Without even getting a copy, Mark (Adam Scott) is willing to poke fun at Ricken’s attempts to philosophize his way through the world.
but severance pay Creator Dan Erickson isn’t so sure. For him, the book was more than a silly joke. And to that end, he never wanted the book to be just a funny voiceover.
“It’s obviously kind of an enhanced version of a self-help book,” Erickson says in a Zoom interview with Polygon. “[But] I didn’t want it to be so silly that it felt out of the world. And also with the knowledge that it would later become a serious plot device. So we wanted to write something that, taken out of context, could believably inspire people and underneath that din had ideas that might have actual value to them.”
For Erickson, Ricken’s ideas represent an important undercurrent of the show: taking the mundane to surprising, stilted depth. When Chernus Butter’s voice-over reminds us, “Your so-called boss may own the clock that mocks you on the wall, but, my friends, the hour is yours,” it’s corny and provocative at the same time. (Erickson’s favorite Chernus lecture is: “Machines are made of metal, but man is made of skin.”)
This delicate balance for a self-help guide set the tone for how Chernus thought about Ricken as a character. The first thing he shot at severance pay, back in 2020, was the book cover, which is quite striking, à la “Dianetics, or like Tony Robbins,” and “vaguely iconic” with its bright colors. (“Self-help might not even be right,” Chernus says. “It’s like aggressive helping.”)
But the voiceover came later. While the script called for someone to read That you are loud, it wasn’t always clear who that would be. When finally commissioned, Chernus worked hard to find the right balance for Ricken’s tone, drawing on his theatrical and Juilliard background to reinforce Ricken’s reading with a Mid-Atlantic accent.
“I know a guy, an artistic guy, who thinks what he’s doing is the most important thing in the world, and [has] this belief that there is so much at stake,” says Chernus. “Of course there is something presumptuous and grandiose about it. But there’s also something incredible about someone just being dialed into their vision and their way of looking at the world.”
In short: he had no need to make fun of the guy. Instead, he saw Ricken’s grandeur as fitting the same kind of formalism as that of Irving or Cobel. And like so many other pieces of the puzzle in severance pay, That you are finds an audience among the innies, blinded by his insight. (Chernus’ favorite line from the book? “Dust is the center of industry.”)
For Erickson, there’s a delicious irony born in the writer’s room: “What if the person Mark despised above all others ended up being the father of the revolution inside?” But ultimately he and Chernus like it the most that the book reached the people it needed to reach.
“There’s commentary on how context affects good art, good writing, or good medium,” Chernus says, citing media he consumed as a freshman trying to read auras or as an adult trying to navigate through the pandemic get. “I agree that it’s the kind of stuff that sounds profound but actually isn’t. But you can’t completely dismiss it if it does anything for the Innies. If it does them any good, who are we to say it’s objectively bad?”
Perhaps the most surprising person it reached was Milchick (Tramell Tillman), the supervisor on the segregated floor whose devotion to Lumon is portrayed as the enforcer of middle management. A stickler for the rules, even Milchick doesn’t report the copy That you are; instead he sits and reads it.
When asked what that interest means for Milchick’s role in Season 2, Erickson is evasive, noting that he’s seen people interpret Milchick’s reading as either genuine interest or a nice chuckle.
“I think maybe this paradox sums it up pretty well,” says Erickson. Didn’t we all get advice before we actually heard it?